Sen. Ernie Chambers, a Solo Act in Nebraska

Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers has spent more than three decades in the state legislature, where he is the only black lawmaker. The 68-year-old talks with Ed Gordon.

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ED GORDON, host: Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers is a maverick independent politician. After 35 years, he is the longest tenured member of Nebraska State Senate. He's also the only African-American. His frankness and unconventional manner have made him a lightning rod in the staunchly conservative state. Nebraska's African-American population is less than five percent, but Chambers represents a black enclave of Omaha. Over the years, he has consistently supported abortion rights and won the unanimous passage of a bill that requires probable cause before the police can order a DNA test. Chambers is as well known for his style of politics as he is for its content. Language enthralls him and his speeches on the Senate floor are known for two things: their colorful wording and their length. He also has a love-hate relationship with the great state of Nebraska. Senator Chambers, thanks for being with us. Good to have you.

Senator ERNIE CHAMBERS (Independent, Nebraska): I'm glad to be here.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about the unique space that you take up there in Nebraska. When people think about African-American politicians, I think one of the state they won't necessarily put on the top of the list is Nebraska. Has it been a unique setting for you?

Senator CHAMBERS: It has been an uphill struggle ever since I came to this legislature 35 years ago, but because our situation is so grave in this state, I knew that I was gonna have a hard job to do so I came ready to do it, I hit the ground running and I haven't stopped.

GORDON: You're the longest serving legislator there in the state, but I also understand that by virtue of a newly passed term-limit law that you'll be forced out of office in '08. How do you look at that?

Senator CHAMBERS: Those who sponsored the effort made it clear that they were trying to get me out of office because I would be returned as long as people in my district could vote for me, maybe for two or three years after I'd croaked. But they knew that the only way they could get rid of me was through term limits so I feel they voted against their own interests to get rid of me. By getting rid of me, they get rid of the other 48 for whom they have no problem.

GORDON: Senator, I'm curious. All of the things that I've read about you paint you as, no stigma attached to this word, a character. That you wear jeans to work, they suggest that you regularly bring your dog to the office, that you have sometimes copyedited bills, even those that you voted against, etc. Do we need this kind of atypical maverick politician to make sure that things don't become to homogenous in Chambers?

Senator CHAMBERS: In Nebraska, it has been needed and they have come in the legislature closer to me than I have to them. If anything, I've become more of what they call radical but it appears less so because they're moving away from some of their ultra-conservative positions. All I tell people when they ask me to characterize myself is that I'm a black man first. Black man and women always must excel. There is more required of us than is required from anybody else and I cannot say who will come after me but it would be good if more people came into these jobs with my attitude, that we determine what is right, because we're not here to win friends, we're here to get results. And even though I often am abrasive, some of my edges are jagged, my approach is confrontational, I will work with others when they're doing something I believe in and despite then fact that a lot of my colleagues want to dislike me, I don't think they can dislike me quite as much as they would like to.

GORDON: When you look at the politicians who have come behind you, are you satisfied that they have taken that route, the idea that you can't befriend everyone, that you sometimes have to shake up the cage?

Senator CHAMBERS: I haven't seen anybody like me before or since and I don't pattern myself after anybody. I set the standard and its very high. Nobody could compel me to do the things that I do. But since I do them voluntarily, I go farther than others will so I have not burned out, I will not be bought out, I am not frightened out, I will not be run out. Many times white people in this state will write to the editor what they think is clever. Give Ernie a one way ticket to wherever and I'll pay for it. But what they need to know is that I'm not going anywhere. The blood, sweat and tears expended by black people gave us all a stake in this country and I'm going to stay here, I'm going to battle. They will not be rid of me until I breathe my last and go up in smoke in the crematorium.

GORDON: Do you see the support waning from the African-American community? Has the battle become long or are you satisfied that those in your district and in your state still understand the importance of what not only what you do but others like you?

Senator CHAMBERS: First of all, I have to say that I am a student of human nature as would be anybody who's been in the world as long as I have which is 68 years. Most people are fickle. They're concerned about their own problems, they don't make a lot of money, so they can't give a lot of time to thinking about what travails I experience on the floor of the legislature. When they put me in office, they put somebody they could trust so in a manner of speaking, they've turned it over to me and said whatever needs to be done, Ernie's going to do it. So, I'd never go to my community and say, I want you all to turn out and do this or do that. My job is to do it alone. If Ali Baba can handle forty thieves, certainly I should be able to handle 48 white people in the legislature. So, the community is very strongly behind me and the problem that could develop is that of the cult of the personality. The notion that nobody can do this job other than me. I don't want people to have that attitude. Naturally it feeds a person's ego, but the situation is too grave for that. So I've been preparing people for the time that I'm not gonna be here and told them that rather than lament as they're doing the day that I leave, work with me while I'm here, let's get as much done as possible and ride this horse as hard as you want to.

GORDON: You're a lawyer, you're a legislator, I read that you're also a barber. Which would you put first?

Senator CHAMBERS: None of them. I'm first of all a black man and these are arrows in my quiver. But I do establish priorities. Those problems that are gravest confronting poor black and voiceless people are the ones that I address first and give the most attention to. Then, in a descending order, I will deal with other things.

GORDON: You are in the State Senate in Nebraska.

Senator CHAMBERS: Yes.

GORDON: What is it about being a State Senator that is so appealing to you?

Senator CHAMBERS: At first it was not, but then I began to see the kinds of changes that I as one man could make if I would have perseverance and never back away from an issue. I've been able to take two men off death row by getting the legislature to agree that the state cannot execute the mentally retarded. They cannot execute anybody who committed what would be a capital crime prior to the age of 18. When it comes to pension pay outs through state programs, women have to get the same pay-out as men. So my view is this. Because I'm extremely patient, when I recognize how difficult a job is, I've been able to nibble my way through to some changes that people, when I first got in the legislature thought would be impossible in this State.

GORDON: Before we let you go, Senator, let me ask you this in relation to what you see around you by means of leadership politically.

Senator CHAMBERS: I don't see any leadership.

GORDON: That was gonna be my question.

Senator CHAMBERS: No, there is no leadership. I'm especially disappointed with the democrats, by the way I'm and independent, I don't belong to either political party, but unlike me, when something comes up for example, a bad person who should not be a judge, the democrats will threaten to filibuster. The republicans know that they're full of hot air so they tell them, if you filibuster, we'll change the rule so that you can't discuss this issue and the democrats make the empty threat, we'll shut down the Congress. Everybody knows that that's not true. So, a person in politics should never shoot blanks and should not make empty threats. My mantra is that of the king cobra. The cobra wastes no venom on dead or fleeing things.

GORDON: All right, Senator, that's a good mantra. Senator Ernie Chambers from Nebraska. We thank you so very much for joining us today.

Senator CHAMBERS: I'm glad I had the opportunity.

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